Should the old AMPOL building be demolished?

Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge, Parkville (formerly AMPOL)

The key issue arising from the Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge case isn’t that the building can now be demolished, but rather what’s proposed to replace it.

The former AMPOL headquarters building is noted for its dramatic circular staircase, but its claims to historical significance aren’t compelling. According to the National Trust:

Historically, it is of interest as a building that is designed in a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of twenty years previously, and is by far the last major building designed in this tradition in Victoria. It is also of interest as the headquarters of one of the major petrol companies in Victoria, which were all undergoing great expansion at that time, and for originally incorporating a petrol station at the ground level.

So, it is the last building designed in a style that was already passé when it was constructed in 1958. And the fact that it was occupied by a major corporation – even a petrol company – shouldn’t be surprising for a building located in the city centre. That’s possibly fascinating, but it’s not the sort of history that justifies preservation when there are alternative uses for the site.

Appearance is always a very subjective topic, but to my eye and, it seems, many others, the staircase is interesting. It’s a sort of melange of Russian Constructivism meets Disney Tomorrowland. Some have labelled it (wrongly) as ‘iconic’. But as visually arresting as it is to the citizens of 2011, it’s neither architecturally nor historically an especially significant staircase.

In fact I suspect it’s much more attractive to contemporary sensibilities that it ever was in its day (would Robin Boyd have labelled the staircase Austerican featurism?). That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.

Stripped of the bunkum about ‘significance’, the streetscape would be no worse off if Elizabeth Tower were replaced by a building that is at least as visually interesting. And that brings us to the core issue – judging by the only picture I could find of it (see picture under fold), the appearance of the proposed replacement building is, to put it nicely, a little bland compared to that dramatic staircase. I’ve no reason to doubt the new building is a tour de force in all other respects and a credit to its designers, but it will inevitably be compared to its predecessor and on that score it appears somewhat underwhelming.

Melbourne University chose not to pursue the populist course of incorporating the staircase in the new building (maybe it could’ve been made into a double helix!?). There’s some logic to that – the new building has laboratories with floor-to-floor heights that are higher than those of the existing staircase. Another reason could be that the staircase is so dominant it would’ve dictated the rest of the design, possibly leading to inefficiencies. It certainly would’ve tied the hands of designers bent on creating an original statement.

Proposed Peter Doherty Institute building

Any new building should be seen as an enhancement, as a step forward, for both the users and the streetscape. Any building that replaces one that was seen to make a contribution to its surroundings carries a special burden.

Rather than pointing the finger at VCAT, Melbourne City Council would be better advised reviewing how well its processes for encouraging the construction of interesting and memorable buildings operate. It might examine closely what incentives and disincentives exist for developers to produce exemplary architecture and how well they work in practice.

For its part, the University could put some effort into marketing the virtues of the replacement building – surely there must be some delights in the proposal that we simply don’t know about? Please, at least try to sell it to us!

I’ll revisit this subject shortly, because it touches on some important issues about how we value buildings for preservation and who wins and who loses.


19 Comments on “Should the old AMPOL building be demolished?”

  1. Michael says:

    “That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.”

    That is demonstrably false if you look around Melbourne’s new commercial buildings almost none of which are memorable five seconds after looking at them. The clone like concrete, panel and glass boxes is practically all anyone can be arse’d building these days. If Land is so scarce for this new centre then why is a car yard on the same block? Most of the rest of it covered by two story warehouses. The arguments for this development seem pretty weak given the poor use of land so close to the university.

    • Alan Davies says:

      My point is that interesting looking buildings needn’t be in short supply. But the fact is that they are (as you point out) and that’s at least in part because not enough is being done by planning authorities to encourage exemplary architecture.

      • Michael (another Michael) says:

        My apologies, I missed the “needn’t” somehow. The real blot on the landscape in that part of town is the giant roundabout – perhaps the planners could have a go at removing that.

        • Michael (another Michael) says:

          Sorry for the name confusion, I’m on a different computer where I had to use another name because there is another Michael who also comments on this blog occasionally. Time to find a more original name.

  2. RED says:

    Why can’t the new building at least reference the old in some way? It could have a new spiral staircase that echoes the old one, surely. I agree that the proposed new building is bland. There needs to be some kind of planning rule that, if you knock a building down, the replacement should be architecturally superior to what was demolished. We should be constantly aiming to improve our urban environment, not make it worse. This is OT, but one wonders what architectural legacy will be left in Auckland, which will be rebuilt by modern architects. They sure won’t get a legacy like Napier did, will they? Why is so much of modern architecture so dreary?

    • Julian Wearne says:

      Last time I checked Auckland was still very much in tact.

      I think you’re referring to Christchurch. Unfortunately due to the huge costs involved in even demolishing what is too damanged to repair, I doubt there will be much in the budget to enforce only the best buildings. I think cost effectiveness will be one of the core goals in Christchurch, at least in the immediate rebuilding.

  3. David Walker says:

    Do we have to have something “interesting and memorable” on this site? “Interesting and memorable” sound like positives, but may not be so. The places I enjoy walking around do not necessarily have a high incidence of memorable and interesting buildings. What they mostly have is an incidence of broad uniformity in materials and visual style and an intensity of interesting detail. Examples include The Rocks and parts of Paris. (The Eiffel Tower is all the better for being surrounded by a bunch of relatively uninteresting buildings, at least on its side of the Seine.)

    I do not know how to get this sort of broad uniformity. But it clearly relies on something very different from, and almost the opposite of, interesting and memorable architecture.

    The advice to concentrate on improving the nearby roundabout is sensible: it’s a blight on that corner of the city. That advice has the added merit of not meddling with any private site owner’s property rights, which while not absolute should at least be a consideration.

  4. rohan says:

    Funny how everyone has an opinion on whether the AMPOL building is ‘significant’ or not; the Trust says it is – the rest of the citation quoted above says ” Architecturally, the building is notable principally for its dramatic glazed circular corner tower, housing Melbourne’s tallest concrete spiral stair. The tower is accentuated by the flanking blue tiled wing walls topped by flagpoles, and neon sign.” not to mention that there werent that many petrol companies in 1957, a time when petrol became the lifeblood of suburbia. And it has heritage protection. And I actually like it too.

    But the main point missed by all comentators is the second point Michael (1) made – why demolish this 10 storey heritage listed building when virtually everything else on that block is low, uninteresting, or in two cases, just open car yards ? I would have though good planning & urban design (mush easier to mandate than ‘good architecture’) would ensure new public buildings going on prominent sites – the Haymarket roundabout needs some urbanity, some enclosure – replacing the car yards with a public building seems by far preferable.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Does the University own the car yard? I don’t think the difficulty of acquiring sites suitable for a highly defined purpose, in the right location, at the right time and at the right price, all the while retaining funding sources, should be underestimated. On the other hand, if the University does own it, then they’ve bought it for a purpose – that purpose might be a better fit than putting the PDI there. In any event, at best, you’d only be delaying demolition of the old AMPOL building by putting the PDI on the car yard.

      P.S. The existing classification is Category C – see ‘National Trust’ link in post.

  5. […] – Should the old AMPOL building be demolished? […]

  6. Bruce Dickson says:

    Alan, take your point about the potential to always replace an interesting building with something even more interesting and comparing the two designs will theoretically help here. However in taking up you point here, my concern is also directed towards the wider comparative context of just how many ‘interesting’ buildings there really are already (and generally) in Australia itself, let alone Melbourne. I don’t score either context well in this regard and maybe that is an argument for at least trying to hang on to the few that already exist and that help slowly build up the historical and contemporary scoreboard in such regards!

  7. rohan says:

    No the Uni doesnt own the car yard or anything else on the block, though they have a masterplan that shows they expect to in the future, with a large 15 storey + building on the car yard site. You are right about what they own vs what they may want to own; my 2 cents worth is that the State Government should consider compulsory acquisition powers for the Uni, given they have a high ‘public benefit’ rating, to assist them in purchasing the most appropriate sites at a reasonable price. Completely disagree that the AMPOL bldg would be eventually demolished anyway – why would that be ?

    PS one site the Uni does own is the 3 storey 1970s Physio department at 200 Berkeley Street right behind the site, and its the same size, and also earmarked for redevelopment in their masterplan, so the PDI could presumably just as easily gone there.

    • Alan Davies says:

      “Completely disagree that the AMPOL bldg would be eventually demolished anyway – why would that be?”

      Because the university has plans for multiple buildings. Even if it puts the PDI on the car yard site, it still has to find sites for its other planned buildings (such as the 15 storey one you mention it has in mind for the car yard).

      • rohan says:

        That leaves a lot of the block – not to mention the surrounding blocks, and the main Uni campus – Ampol should be the last one to be considered for dem, since the only one with heritage listing. Just because Uni s constantly expanding doesn mean they have licence to override heritage controls. They almost demolished half the terraces of Uni Sq, and the terraces on Faraday / Cardigan, only kept them (or fronts at least) after huge public outcry. Pity such a compromise not possible here.

        • Alan Davies says:

          “override” seems a bit strong in this context — wasn’t due process followed via VCAT?

          Maybe one reason the Uni takes a hard line is that expansion is not as easy in Parkville as it is for a suburban Uni. See the number of properties which (quite properly, no doubt) are on the Heritage Places Inventory, Melbourne Planning Scheme.

          • rohan says:

            Totally agree with your comment that Melb Uni takes a ‘hard line’ when it comes to heritage listed places – they basically need to be cajoled every time, though at least their latest masterplan recognises most listed places as ‘to be retained’ – Ampol surprising listed as ‘medium’ heritage value despite its existing heritage listing, thus the assumption of demolition. And as anyone can see from Sth Carlton HO maps, that area, unlike bulk of Carlton and Parkville is not a blanket heritage area, just dotted with individual places, AMPOL being one (its not actually in Parkville). Yes heritage places are an issue that Monash for instance doesnt have to worry about – yet ! but surely Melb Uni just has to work with existing planning rules like everyone else ? As to “due process” at VCAT, as any planner would know this process doesnt mean the outcome tallies with other VCAT decisions or is always ‘good’ planning – depending on your point of view.

  8. Sean Deany says:

    Oh what a shame its going. In 1990 I described this very building to a house mate as being Russian Constructivist in style. He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, but I’m happy to hear that you also share similar affinities to the former AMPOL Building. So when the Parkville Metro Station is ever built and one wants to make arrangements to meet up with their housemate, after Uni or work, there will be no landmark such as this one to go by. It would make a great metro station entrance with that prominent spiral staircase – why hasn’t this been considered!

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